One minute, Pam Latt and Dale Rumberger were having a peaceful airplane flight; the next thing they knew, they were flying sideways at high speed, about to land on an aircraft carrier.
Said Latt, principal of Centreville High: "I love rollercoaster rides, and this was the greatest ride I ever took — it was fabulous." But it was no amusement-park ride — it was the real thing — done at the request of Navy Chief Henry Fernandez, head of the Naval recruiting office in Fairfax,
"I thought it was a great opportunity," said Rumberger, Westfield High's principal. "I'd read so much about the post-9/11 kids being interested in the military — and so many recruiters come by the school, every year — so I thought I needed a refresher course on the military and what it does."
Fernandez knew Latt from the community, and Navy recruiter Paul Bartruff — one of Rumberger's former Hayfield High students — helped Fernandez put together the trip. Latt said it's rare for the Navy to invite educators, but Fernandez had a purpose.
"I wanted them to see what's actually happening with our young men and women," he explained. "For them to get the concept of [just how much responsibility they shoulder in the Navy], they need to see it in action."
Noting that not everyone can afford college, Fernandez said military service enables people to gain experience in a profession while getting a military-paid, college education. He said the young sailors are doing a "phenomenal" job: "The sacrifices they make are why we're free today and why we'll be free tomorrow."
Rumberger and Latt were among 12 educators participating, including Westfield's aviation-and-aerospace teacher, Dave Jaegels. They drove to the Norfolk naval base, Sept. 27, leaving the next morning at 6:15 a.m. in a C-3 transport plane headed for an aircraft carrier in the ocean off Jacksonville, Fla.
At first, said Rumberger, "Everybody was a little nervous because they didn't know what to expect." They all wore headgear called "cranial covers," plus earplugs and life vests, and had a smooth flight on the 24-seat plane.
But the carrier landing, a few hours later, said Rumberger, was "pretty exciting and dramatic." The plane landed facing backward, said Latt, for less stress on their backs, but everything else about the landing was "wild."
"The plane approaches from aft, the back of the ship, and makes a sharp left turn so the plane is sideways to the carrier," she said. "Then it drops 10 stories and the plane speeds up because — in case it doesn't catch the carrier's tailhook — it would have to take off and try again. I literally howled as we landed, because of the sharp turn and the drop. It was very exciting and thrilling."
"You fly parallel to the carrier, in the opposite direction, about 150 feet off the water and turn 180 degrees," said Rumberger. "You're lying on your side as the plane's turning, and you come out of that straight and are right on line to land. You go from flying to stop in about 120 feet — it was wonderful, exhilarating."
Latt said planes land on the carrier every 15 seconds so, "as soon as you land, your plane whips around to the right, off the deck's landing strip." They landed on the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy; Caroline Kennedy is the carrier's patron, and the captain's wardroom is filled with JFK memorabilia donated by the family.
The visitors learned about the ship's history and its recent, seven-month deployment off the coast of Afghanistan, in the Arabian Sea, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. It just returned, last spring.
Latt said the crew shared with them photos and stories of their experience. "They grew up so fast," she said. "We all walked away with incredible respect for them. I always had respect for the military, but now I have even more."
They toured the entire carrier — all 27 floors, 17 below deck and 10 above. "We literally climbed 200 flights of stairs, up and down," said Latt. "I laughed because they had Stairmasters, and I asked them, 'Who the heck needs Stairmasters?'"
They went onto the bridge, where the captain directs the carrier and the air boss directs the airmen. And they watched Navy pilots land on the carrier as part of their training. On Sept. 28, experienced pilots got certified; Sept. 29 was for pilots doing it for the first time. Said Rumberger: "Everybody is assessed and evaluated all the time, and that's what determines if they fly and what they fly."
The pilots flew small T-45 and T-2 fighter jets, alternating between "touch-and-go's" and landings. "It was scary — a lot of them didn't do it right, the first time," said Latt. "We watched them catapult off; a catapult catches the plane and rams it from zero to 120 mph in 1.1 seconds. It goes from dead still to flying — you can't even blink that fast."
She said it was exciting watching these pilots, and she enjoyed talking with them afterward. "I would love to do that," she said. "I think it would be the most amazing experience."
The ship was in international waters and, when Latt asked how safe they were out there, she was told that two submarines circle the aircraft carrier at all times. When Rumberger asked what Sept. 11 was like for the sailors and Latt asked if they were prepared for war, they replied, "We're always preparing for war, every day."
She said the ship's like a city — complete with a hospital, dentist, store, etc. — and the crew members work hard, seven days a week. "I really feel our country is in great hands with these kinds of people," she said. "I was so impressed with everybody. We were absolutely bowled over by the professionalism and teamwork that we saw."
The educators saw the engine room where thick shafts turned the ship's four propellers, as well as the command control center. "We got a comprehensive view of every facet of the ship, from aircraft maintenance and repair to electronics," said Rumberger. "It underscored the obvious need for people to know electronics and computers and have the ability to think on their feet. The Navy's looking for people who can take orders, but can also interpret information and make decisions."
He was amazed at how many enlisted personnel were taking college courses — many, via satellite. "What a connection to education," he said. "The more they learned, the higher rank they'd achieve and the more money they'd make."
The average age of the sailors was 24, and Rumberger saw many parallels between the ship and his school. "They have 2,730 people on the JFK, and I have 2,721 on the 'U.S.S. Westfield,'" he said. "We both spend time on maintenance, human resources and constant training and assessments — for us, SATs, SOLs, etc."
Afterward, the educators received captain's hats and patches, tailhook certificates and a photo memory-book. Said Rumberger: "I'm appreciative to the Navy for broadening our horizons and giving us more awareness [of what it does]." Added Latt: "I feel blessed to have had that opportunity. It was the thrill of a lifetime."